Charles Back: Fairview, Spice Route and the Goats
South Africa revisited part 12

Charles Back

I’d visited Fairview twice before. Once was a visit with the family (then young) in 2003; the second time was in 2005. This time the visit was a relaxed event at the end of a long day.

Charles Back’s Fairview is one of the great tourist destination wineries. They now have 250 000 visitors a year, and the tasting room is cleverly arranged with a number of tasting stations, making it possible to serve many simultaneously. These stations are effectively autonomous, and are run competitively: a great way to motivate staff ('empowerment pods').

Back is a ready commentator on the South African wine scene. ‘South Africa has seen lots of growth, but at the end of the market where it is difficult for smaller companies to be able to compete, in the sub-£5 market,’ says Charles. ‘The industry has been sucked dry of wines at the bargain basement level. In the better regions, it is going to be difficult for these wines to fit into that lower price point. We are better suited to the £6–10 price point at Fairview: we have stayed out of the sub-£5 bracket.’

Fairview’s wines used to be well distributed in supermarkets and high street stores in the UK, but a few years back pulled out. ‘The margins weren’t sufficient to build a sustainable business in the supermarkets and Majestic,’ he says. ‘The warning signs are there for the South African industry. It is very difficult for farmers replanting to have money to recapitalize their businesses. The rand has strengthened 15–20%, which has made businesses vulnerable.’

Back also thinks that ‘in a way, the recession has sanitized the wine business. People are going for safety first.

He’s been famous for playing with Rhône blends. ‘The Rhône grapes as a collection of varieties are more suited to South African regions more broadly than Bordeaux varieties. The problem with the Rhône varietal blends is not that the quality is not right; it is just that the market is not very receptive. In South Africa people still look at Bordeaux as the pinnacle of wine quality. I feel that there may be a return to well made Bordeaux classics. So I’m hedging my bets.’

‘I started this 14 years ago, and was the first to do Rhône style red blends, and the first to do Rhône style whites. The challenge facing the whites is that they are quite complicated wines. The whole market has moved to a clinical style of Sauvignon Blanc, and people don’t know what to do with them.’

‘We grow most of our own grapes,’ says Charles. ‘We are not a buckie and cell phone operation.’ He has 1000 hectares of land, with 500 hectares planted. He has vineyards in Darling, Malmesbury, Paarl and Stellenbosch, and altogether operates from three wineries.

Many of these plantings are young, and Charles has created a new label to use the fruit from the young vines, La Capra. This is an addition to an already large range, which includes the Fairview estate wines, Spice Route and the Goats du Roam red and white (a 100 000 case brand).


La Capra Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Very fresh with grapefruit, grassy nose. Quite aromatic. The palate is bright and fresh with herbal, grassy notes and lovely freshness and focus. 85/100

La Capra Chenin Blanc 2009
Fresh with nice rich fruit and lovely texture. Very fruity with richness and freshness working well together. 83/100

La Capra Malbec 2008
Sweet pure dark berry and blackcurrant fruit nose. Very fresh and focused. Pure, sweetly fruited palate with some coconut and vanilla notes. 84/100

Goats du Roam White 2009
Very bright, crisp and fruity with rounded character. Nice grapefruit freshness with lovely crispness and some generosity. 85/100

Goats du Roam Red 2008
Ripe, spicy and slightly meaty on the nose. The palate is plush but fresh with nice vibrant sweet fruit and attractive spiciness. Very attractive and appealing, with good definition. 85/100

Fairview Viognier 2008
Very attractive peach, pear and grapefruit pith notes. Nice and fresh, with lovely fruit and some Viognier character. Pure and appealing. 87/100

Fairview Sauvignon 2009
This is from the sea side of the Darling region with 10% of Swartland fruit added in. Very fresh, green, herby nose with nice fruit. The palate is lively and quite spicy with grapefruit and green pepper notes. Lively stuff with nice texture. No acidification used. 89/100

Fairview Weisser Riesling 2009
Very crisp and taut limey nose. The palate is crisp and limey with nice citrus fruit and some talcum powder notes. Very taut: a lovely crisp dry style with lovely fruit. 89/100

Fairview Chenin Blanc 2009 Darling
Charles has planted bush vine chenin in the Darling region, which crops at 3–4 tons/hectare. Very ripe and fresh with lovely herb and straw notes, as well as good texture and acidity. Good flavour here. 88/100

Fairview Tannat 2007
Sweet and juicey with lovely rounded berry fruit as well as spice and vanilla notes. Very quaffable with some personality, as well as heavy oak influence. 85/100

Fairview Barbera 2008
Retains acidity and pH. Sweet, open and berryish on the nose. The palate is fresh and juicy with bright berry fruit, as well as plum and spice. Nice definition. 88/100

Fairview Petite Syrah 2008
Vibrant and spicy nose, with amazingly intense dark fruits. Concentrated palate with robust structure under the amazing fruit. Real density and structure here. Lovely. 91/100

Fairview Sangiovese 2008
Very fresh and supple with juicy cherry and berry fruit. There’s a slightly herby edge. Ripe, rounded and expressive. 87/100

Fairview ‘The Beacon’ Shiraz 2007
From a single vineyard in Paarl with shale soil. Low yielding bushvines. Sweet and dark with lovely rich, meaty, spicy fruit. The palate is concentrated and intense with sweet, dark blackberry fruit and intense, spicy definition. Firm structure, too. An intense style. Immense, firm and rich. Modern but classical. 92/100

Spice Route Chenin Blanc 2008
Fermented in second and third fill barrels. Very rich aromatic nose with sweet, herby, subtly toasty fruit and some citrus notes. Nicely textured palate is fresh and fruity with a subtle nuttiness and rich herby fruit. Lovely rich, intense style with lots of personality. 89/100

Spice Route Malabar 2005
This flagship wine spends two years in new oak. It’s a project that began when Eben Sadie started with Charles at the beginning of Spice Route. Very intense, tarry, spicy, earthy nose is rich and complex in a warm, almost roasted style. The palate is intense and ripe with sweet dark fruits coupled with warm spice and vanilla notes. Really full and concentrated in a new world style. Lush but spicy. 90/100

Spice Route Chakalaka 2008
A blend of just about everything. Attractive vibrant sweet, ripe berry and black fruits nose with lovely purity. The palate is very rich with lovely pure, sweet berry and black fruits. Juicy with good acid and richness – a lovely wine. 90/100

Part 1, Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards
Part 2, Cape Point Vineyards
Part 3, AA Badenhorst Family Wines
Part 4, Eben Sadie: Sadie Family Wines and Sequillo Cellars
Part 5, Paul Kretzel of Lammershoek
Part 6, Mullineux Family Wines
Part 7, Vondeling
Part 8, Scali
Part 9, Sterhuis
Part 10, Raats
Part 11, Migliarina
Part 12, Charles Back and Fairview
Part 13, Hermit on the Hill
Part 14, Klein Constantia
Part 15, Iona, Elgin
Part 16, Paul Cluver, Elgin
Part 17, Eagles' Nest, Constantia
Part 18, Anthonij Rupert
Part 19, Oak Valley, Elgin
Part 20, Shannon, Elgin

Wines tasted 11/09  
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